COP27 officially kicked off on Nov. 6, 2022, and it’s being dubbed the “African COP.” But not just because it’s taking place in Egypt (a transcontinental country spanning Africa and Asia). It also earned its nickname because this COP is set to emphasize the climate issues most pertinent to African countries, which are facing some of the worst impacts of climate change.
The African continent and other communities in the Global South have contributed the least to the climate crisis, yet are disproportionately suffering its effects, from tropical storms and hurricanes to food insecurity and displacement.
One of the big issues on the COP27 table will be fossil fuels in Africa. The continent has vast oil and gas reserves, but they have remained largely untapped. Some energy officials argue that fossil fuels are necessary to expanding economies and electricity access across a continent in which 759 million people are still without electricity. As Uganda Energy Minister Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu put it: "Africa has woken up and we are going to exploit our natural resources."
In fact, an African Union committee has put together a proposal for adoption at COP27. This proposal explicitly calls for the expansion of fossil fuel projects, barely mentions renewable energy or decentralized energy access, would pollute the continent, and put lives at risk.
Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, referenced the proposal by saying: “It would be a shameful betrayal of African people, already on the front line of the climate crisis, if African leaders use this November’s COP27 climate summit on African soil to lock Africa into a fossil fuel based future.”
Not only would the exploitation of Africa’s vast reserves of oil make it close to impossible for the world to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, it would also wreak havoc on the environment and the people living on it.
We have but to turn to the recent past to see the disastrous consequences of fossil fuel extraction. In 2004, for instance, the Niger Delta Shell Oil spill disaster destroyed the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen in the region, contaminating their water sources and damaging their land. Moreover, Africa's wildlife has also been hit by the horrors of fossil fuel extraction, endangering elephants and driving critically endangered species to the verge of extinction.
But there is hope. Civil society organizations across the continent are fighting back with a clear message: “Don’t Gas Africa.”
Don’t Gas Africa is a campaign on a mission: fighting the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and urging African leaders to prioritize a fair and just transition to renewable energy.
We sat down with Dean Bhebhe and Lorraine Chiponda, campaigners and facilitators of Don’t Gas Africa, for an exclusive interview about their work; the generational impact the fossil fuel industry has had on the livelihoods, natural resources, and health of African people; the fight for climate action in Africa; the need to amplify the voices of its citizens; and what a just transition would look like.
Why was the Don't Gas Africa campaign started?
Dean: At the beginning of the year, we had a convening of organizations across Africa. [We realized that] we were all working on similar goals and had similar objectives. Instead of working in silos, the question became: “how do we make sure that we work together as Africa instead of working individually with the same objective at the core?”
That’s when the African movement-of-movements was born. It’s not an entity or an organization, but rather a space where civil societies come together to amplify and support each other’s work and see that we are trying to create a movement that encompasses the African continent.
The Don’t Gas Africa campaign was born out of a reaction to what the African Union was proposing. So in terms of when this really started for all of us, it was June this year. And it’s been moving since then.
Most importantly, it’s an African-led effort, where we are actually owning our narrative, our implementations, and our strategies together.
Why is it so important for the voices of people from Africa to take center stage in climate conversations, particularly now?
Dean: I think of why it’s important particularly for the Don’t Gas Africa campaign, which is because Africa as a continent cannot afford the risk associated with the investment in gas, because that creates a profile of problems such as creating stranded assets and getting the content itself locked into particular infrastructure formats, which are grounded on exploitation.
We are trying to pursue an African energy future that is grounded on renewable energy. That is the Africa we want. But we also have to discuss the Africa we do not want and that Africa is governed by gas.
The dash for gas we are currently seeing has similarities with what's historically been known as the "Scramble for Africa" [the colonization of Africa by western countries]. If we look at this through the lens of colonialism, we can see that as a result of the dash for gas in Africa, we are continuing to allow the western world to make decisions for Africa’s future.
Another important aspect to look at is inequality, because any conversation about the climate crisis in Africa is incomplete without considering how it disproportionately affects disadvantaged communities, who are the least responsible for the climate crisis.Yet, they are the ones most vulnerable to its impact.
The dash for gas is also a political issue. Gas in Africa does not foster local ownership and democratic control. It actually risks making Africa’s energy system more subject to foreign ownership and influence.
The gas problem is also very important because fossil fuels are the main drivers of climate change, and climate change is becoming the largest driver of biodiversity loss worldwide. We want to use this and want to fuel the growing threat of using Africa as a gas station as a red flag and a red light for Africa to raise its climate ambitions, particularly on the international agenda. We want to use [the campaign] to raise Africa’s ability to be a key stakeholder of a green global economy, and not just be a victim of the climate crisis. We have a unique opportunity to define a common narrative for Africa’s energy future.
Lorraine: This dash for gas is not an African agenda, it’s not being driven by the energy needs of the 600 billion people who are in energy poverty in Africa. It is a foreign agenda which mirrors very much the colonial agenda and we know that the colonial legacy is tied to fossil fuel extraction in Africa. It’s not meant to benefit African people but actually taking out the gas to benefit the global community.
What role do young activists play within Don’t Gas Africa, and why are young people’s voices so important in the movement for climate action?
Lorraine: Young people’s voices are very much an important aspect in the climate movement because we are [changing] to worse leadership, and young people need to ensure that their future is sustainable. Issues with intergenerational equity need to be taken into consideration and intergenerational equity will only happen if young people are involved in the discourse and in the climate spaces, given that they're the ones going to be holding the space in the future for other generations that will come after them.
It’s very important that we have young people in the spaces where decisions are being made now.
If you look at the start of fossil fuel investments, they did not impact people in terms of climate disasters there and then, but 20 or 30 years later, those climate disasters started intensifying. If young people back then had been empowered, educated, and informed, they would have resisted fossil investment. The decision today might not affect people now but we need young people that are involved and that are aware of issues, and that can actually challenge the current discourse because it is going to affect people’s futures if young people are not involved in the climate space as well.
They are also a large chunk of the population. Africa is a growing nation, it’s a very youthful population, which means that young people are taking up space and so they need to come from an informed position and they need to be involved in decision-making processes now, while the decisions are still being made.
Living in a world where we have heavily relied on the use of fossil fuels, how can we on both a personal and collective level find ways to unlearn this and instead work towards a world that functions with cleaner energy?
Dean: I think the most important thing, particularly at a community level, is information analysis. A lot of people who are not in the climate space do not know what we mean by climate change, the climate crisis, and the climate emergency. There’s this big gap in trying to understand fossil fuel literacy and also giving the people the toolkit and the basic foundation of what it would mean to campaign against fossil fuels once you’ve attained that knowledge. So I think the most important thing is we need to tackle that knowledge gap, but also attach that learning outcome with experiences.
For example, in the Niger Delta, I remember we had interviews with people in Nigeria and they explained that every time a mining company came to their region, they were so happy. Because they were promised better hospitals, better health, better education, and better roads. But 20 years later, and none of those promises have ever come to fruition.
Firstly, people are being lied to. Secondly, they are actually dumping themselves in a deeper hole, because of what extractivism represents. It doesn’t represent any improvement to infrastructure or livelihoods, it doesn’t represent breakthroughs for hospitals or health access. So to a large extent, people are being taken advantage of because of the fact that they are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There is a lot of information that still needs to be [distributed] in terms of people understanding what this could potentially look like, and we also need to dispel false solutions for example, [the idea] that gas is somehow green. A lot of people are buying into that because it’s being driven by African leaders but this is also being fueled by capitalism, which is profit-seeking. It’s easier and faster to produce goods using fossil fuels than renewable energy, but not if we are talking about the damage that’s done. At the moment, a lot of people don’t know that a lot of people in Africa don’t have access to electricity and they don’t know the magnitude of that.
Lastly, one of the most important things that has recently come out of Africa is geoengineering — a way of trying to come up with different means to control global warming through technology. To me, that’s only a method to try to justify the continuation of fossil fuel extraction and not really provide a real solution. Africa needs to step up and realize that these solutions do not offer improved social-economic livelihoods and do not offer a better future for Africans. The key figures are the African leaders because they should be able to tell now what we have gone through as a result of the fossil fuel industry and them adopting gas will only recreate that cycle, and what we see now can only get worse for Africa.
Global North countries are investing in fossil fuel infrastructure across Africa. Are these investments helpful or harmful to Africa?
Lorraine: In terms of the fossil fuel investments, the pipelines that are carrying these fossil fuels are actually leading out of and into Africa. If you look at the statement that has been made by the Egyptian energy minister, he was saying that Egypt is very much for fossil fuels as it sits nearer Europe and can easily get fossil fuels out.
If you look at Mozambique, all those fossil fuel companies, they are looking to extract the gas and the coal, and it’s not meant to benefit the people in Mozambique in that [many] people in rural areas in Mozambique don’t have energy or electricity in their homes. In terms of energy investment, Africa is getting investments that are causing environmental degradation, that are displacing communities from their ancestral rural lands, and people are losing their family lands and their natural water sources from companies that are coming to invest in fossil fuels. That investment is not benefiting [them] and nor are the profits benefiting Africa.
We also cannot afford further debt accumulation, so when the investment comes through commercial loans, which will in turn bring debt to citizens, it will not work for African people.
Look at how employment is structured [within the fossil fuel industries] in places like South Africa. African people are losing their land, losing their traditional and local livelihoods or their local economies, and are taking up jobs that are very low paying, that result in health issues and complications such as lung diseases as a result of inhaling toxins from working in coal mines. So in terms of employment, it’s still harmful, and then women have to carry the burden, because they have to nurse those men who are sick from working in coal mines, they have to take care of the family, because the money coming from these coal mines is still not enough.
What does the future of a renewable energy-led Africa look like to you?
Dean: I think a transition to renewable energy will lead to an increase in employment, so renewable energy is not all about low carbon, it’s [also] about livelihoods, empowerment, and social justice. Renewable energy has a higher potential in employment by creating more well-paying jobs than the fossil fuel industry, with greater diversity of opportunities as well, and the renewable energy sector could easily absorb the fossil fuel manpower, so switching from non-renewable energy to renewable energy will also support rural economies.
In fact, an ambitious reach torenewable energy and greater energy efficiency could lead to 14 million jobs created by 2030 and renewable energy jobs are also distributed more equally. Women are currently not represented in the [fossil] industry, but that is [estimated] to triple if we adopt renewable energy.
The impact of fossil fuel generation has had severe consequences on water quality, and so by really adopting renewable energy we are also saving water, and also taxing the drought that’s really plagued the whole of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, because right now one drop of oil can contaminate 25 liters of water, making it undrinkable. But to produce electricity, wind power would use just one liter of water.